In Surprise Move, FCC Defends Loosened Newspaper Cross-Ownership Rules — But Copps Vows Tighter Ban

By: Mark Fitzgerald

In a surprise move, the Democrat-controlled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Wednesday defended changes to media cross-ownership rules adopted in the George W. Bush administration that loosened somewhat the ban on same-market common ownership of a newspaper and broadcast station.

Under Chairman Julius Genachowski and with a 3-2 Democratic majority, the commission had been expected to take a hard line on media cross-ownership policy.

But in a filing with the U.S. appeals court that had put those rules on hold, the FCC affirmed agency’s 2007 decision under former Chairman Kevin Martin and the Republican majority on the agency that modified the 35-year-old ban to allow newspapers in the biggest markets to own either one radio station or one television broadcast station, but not the top-rated outlets.

In a statement, Genachowski suggested the FCC position before the court was mostly related to the commission’s authority to change the cross-ownership rules.

“While the rules being challenged were adopted before I became chairman, I support our general counsel in arguing that the order was within the discretion of the commission and the brief’s general defense of the commission’s authority to make decisions based on the information before it at the time,” FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement.

But a fellow Democrat on the commission, Michael Copps, immediately attacked the official FCC position – and vowed to return to a more strict ban on cross-ownership.

“Rather than bemoan what has happened today, however, I intend to redouble my efforts to move this issue to the commission’s front burner where it deserves to be,” Copps said.  “We should have changed our media policy by now.  We change it in the months just ahead,” he added in the statement, which put the word “must” in bold italics.

Copps said it was difficult for him to believe that the FCC with a new majority “is in court today basically accepting the validity of the pro-consolidation decision of a previous commission.  We have had 18 months to reconsider the awful vote that loosened our newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rules, but the best we can do, judging from today’s brief, is to kick the media ownership can farther down the road.  Months ago we asked the court to be patient with us while the agency deliberates where it wants to go on media policy.  The court understandably ran out of patience.  Eighteen months is time enough to stop implementation of a rule that can only wreak more harm on our already threatened and diminished media.”

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which has repeatedly argued the rule is outdated and should be completely scrapped, noted that as much as anything the FCC filing was made to assert its rule-making authority.

“At this point, we will respond accordingly,” NAA President and CEO John Sturm said in an interview. “The good news is it looks like the court is finally going to get a chance to make it’s opinion known. it’s been a long time, six years of litigation, since the court last issued an opinion (on cross-ownership).

The filing was condemned by so-called media democracy groups, including Washington-based Free Press.

“We are disappointed that Chairman Genachowski directed the agency to defend a defective (cross-ownership) rule that has been widely criticized both for its substance and for the manner in which it was adopted,” Free Press Policy Counsel Corie Wright said. “We are also disheartened because the current commission had the opportunity to fix a number of loopholes in the rule through the FCC’s reconsideration process. But it declined to do so. As a consequence, the rule could allow local newspapers and TV stations to merge in virtually any market, resulting in less diverse and democratic media.”

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